PORTLAND, Ore. — Ammon Bundy walked a fine line Wednesday describing the armed takeover he led of a wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, yet denying that he and his six co-defendants broke any laws.
In his second day testifying in his own defense, Bundy, 41, a self-proclaimed reluctant activist, rejected the prosecution allegation that he conspired with other defendants to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January. But he admitted planning to make a “hard stand” against the federal government over two local ranchers who’d been sentenced to prison for arson.
“We were following the law constitutionally,” Bundy testified. He also said wildlife refuge workers were “absolutely not” threatened by him.
The central charge against Bundy, his brother Ryan Bundy, 43, and five others is that they conspired to impede federal employees who work at the bird refuge. Federal prosecutors contend Bundy and two others also illegally possessed firearms at the refuge. Ryan Bundy and another man were charged with theft of government property. The minimum sentence for each, if they are convicted, is six years.
Bundy denied possessing a firearm at the refuge, yet admitted encouraging others to arm themselves. Guns made authorities take the occupiers seriously and brought media coverage, he said.
“I began to believe that the only way for us to get our message out is if they respected us a little bit,” Bundy told jurors.
Bundy said he originally only sought to protest the case of Dwight and Steve Hammond, the ranchers convicted of setting fires on federal land. But the occupation’s goal widened as elected officials ignored letters pleading for a reinvestigation into the father and son’s case, Bundy said.
The new objective, he said, was taking possession of the refuge to turn into an engine for economic growth by allowing cattle grazing and other commercial activity.
Jurors saw a video message Bundy posted days before the occupation began in which he asked followers to join him in Oregon.
“I ask you to come to Harney County to participate in this wonderful thing that the Lord is about to accomplish,” Bundy said.
He said he was guided by the words of the Founding Fathers and his Mormon faith. He tried to read aloud from the Declaration of Independence and Mormon scripture that he carried in the breast pocket of his blue jail uniform, but U.S. District Judge Anna Brown stopped him, saying it was irrelevant.
Bundy said he interprets the Constitution as allowing individuals to seize land if they occupy and improve it.
“This is the reason why we went into the refuge and did what we did,” Bundy explained.
Melodi Molt, who testified for the defense earlier, told HuffPost that Bundy’s message resonated with many people in her corner of Oregon.
“He woke up a bunch of sleeping people,” Molt said, though she acknowledged that Bundy’s rhetoric polarized neighbors. A large percentage of residents work for government agencies, so they felt threatened by Bundy, Molt said.
Bundy and his supporters have testified about the welcoming atmosphere they created during their control of the refuge. They said it was easy for visitors to enter the grounds. Occupiers talked about families bringing their children.
University of Oregon geography professor Peter Walker, who’s writing a book about the occupation, told HuffPost he found the protesters intimidating when he visited.
“They had every reason to be friendly to local families who came to the refuge, and they were,” Walker said in an email. “But if they considered you an opponent, it was a completely different story. I personally witnessed the occupiers verbally and physically assault and threaten environmentalist counter-protestors who came into the refuge.”
For a second day, Bundy’s testimony was cut short to accommodate a witness who needed to travel. Bundy is expected to resume testifying on Thursday, before the prosecution cross-examines him.